Attorneys representing Pike County massacre suspect George Washington Wagner IV, who was charged along with his parents and brother in the murders eight members of the Rhoden family, told an Ohio judge that their client should not be eligible for the death penalty. The defense team claims new evidence shows he didn’t actually kill anyone.
In a motion seeking to dismiss eight charges of aggravated murder and the related death specifications for the April 2016 slayings, attorney John P. Parker wrote that prosecutors are continuing to hold the death penalty over George Wagner IV’s head in an attempt to leverage his younger brother Edward “Jake” Wagner into providing testimony to state investigators.
“Recently provided discovery makes it clear that George Washington Wagner IV did NOT shoot and kill any of the victims,” states the motion, filed Friday in Pike County Court of Common Pleas. “Yet the State insists on proceeding with this case [as] a capital case unless and until Jake Wagner testifies for the State to its satisfaction. Thus, the State seeks to hold the death penalty over the head of George Wagner who did not kill anybody while it has struck a remarkable plea bargain with the actual killer of at least five victims who also shot a sixth victim.”
“Such a Claim is Factually False and Untrue”
A bill of particulars filed against George Wagner IV in July 2019 stated that he “shot each victim personally,” a claim his attorney says prosecutors know to be verifiably wrong.
“It is now clear that such a claim is factually false and untrue. George Washington Wagner IV shot nobody. The State knows the Bill of Particulars is false and that George Wagner shot nobody,” his attorney wrote.
Jake Wagner in August admitted to personally killing five members of the Rhoden family and pleaded guilty to 23 criminal charges that included multiple counts of aggravated murder. Prosecutors recommended the 28-year-old be sentenced to eight consecutive life terms without parole plus more than 100 years in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table.
George and Jake’s mother, 50-year-old Angela Wagner, earlier this month pleaded guilty to lesser charges, including conspiracy to commit aggravated murder and aggravated burglary. Prosecutors recommended she serve 30 years in prison in exchange for the aggravated murder charges being dropped.
But both Jake and Angela’s plea deals included provisions requiring Jake and Angela to testify against George Wagner IV and his father, George Wagner III, should those cases go to trial. Because of the cooperation provision in the agreements, Pike County Common Pleas Judge Randy Deering will not formally sentence Jake or Angela until the cases against the other members of the family are closed. George Wagner III and IV have pleaded not guilty to multiple counts of murder and other lesser charges.
Prosecutors claim that the plot to commit mass murder began in late 2015 when Angela Wagner hacked into Hanna Rhoden’s Facebook account. Wagner read a message from Hanna Rhoden to another person in which she discussed the Wagners wanting full custody of the daughter Rhoden had with Jake Wagner. Special prosecutor Angie Canepa said Hanna Rhoden wrote “they’ll have to kill me.” Canepa said Angela Wagner showed the message to Jake and the murder plot unfolded from there.
On April 22, 2016, the Rhodens were found shot to death at four locations on Union Hill Rd. and Left Fork Rd. in Pike County, Ohio. The victims were Christopher Rhoden Sr., his cousin Gary Rhoden, and Christopher’s ex-wife Dana Manley Rhoden. Christopher and Dana’s children, Frankie Rhoden, Christopher Rhoden Jr. and Hanna Rhoden, were also shot to death along with Frankie’s fiancée, Hannah “Hazel” Gilley. Kenneth Rhoden was found shot once in his camper several miles away.
Investigators turned their attention to the Wagner family in the Spring of 2017. They descended upon a farm Jake and George had recently sold and searched the property along with the Flying W farm owned by Fredericka Wagner, Jake and George’s grandmother.
Angela Wagner told Law&Crime’s Angenette Levy in a Facebook message in May 2017 that her family was being slandered and that they were innocent.
The Wagners moved to Alaska in 2017. When the family moved to Alaska, they took Jake’s daughter and George’s young son with them. George also had sole custody of his son that he had with his ex-wife. Prosecutors have said the Wagners were “obsessed” with custody and control of children.
Court documents filed by prosecutors said that Jake Wagner married a woman named Elizabeth while the family was living in Alaska and that he and other family members controlled her every move and threatened to kill her. Prosecutors wrote that the family became upset when Jake’s daughter referred to Elizabeth as “mom” because the child was supposed to call Angela Wagner “mom.”
The same documents, which outlined prosecutors’ intent to use “other acts” evidence, said the Wagners got George’s first wife to sign away most of her custody rights to their son under false pretenses, controlled her movements and spied on her.
State agents traveled to Alaska and Montana to interview the family as the investigation continued. The Wagners moved back to Ohio in 2018. In November 2018, then-Attorney General Mike DeWine announced a grand jury indicted the four Wagner family members for the murders.
“There’s Blood Everywhere”
The investigation has been called one of the largest in Buckeye State history. On the morning of April 22, 2016, Bobbi Jo Manley, Dana Rhoden’s sister, went to Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s trailer to feed his dogs that morning and found Christopher and Gary’s bodies covered in blood in the trailer and called 911. Christopher had defensive wounds on his body, according to an autopsy report.
“There’s blood everywhere,” Manley said on the 911 call. Manley and her brother, James Manley, found five other members of their family shot. Frankie Rhoden and his fiancée, Hannah Gilley, were shot in the head in their bed. Their 6-month-old child was in the bed with them covered in blood. Frankie’s toddler son was covered in blood as well and answered the door when Bobbi Jo approached.
James Manley found his sister, Dana Rhoden, shot in her trailer. He also found his niece, Hanna Rhoden, shot in the head in her bed. Her 4-day-old baby was in the bed next to her. Christopher Rhoden Jr. was 16 years old and was also found shot to death in the trailer.
Then-Pike Co. Sheriff Charlie Reader called the Ohio Attorney General’s Office immediately to request assistance; the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation took over as the lead investigative agency.
Kenneth Rhoden’s cousin found him hours later shot in his camper on Left Fork Rd.
Ohio BCI investigated Bobbi Jo and James Manley for the murders. James was arrested and charged with tampering with evidence in 2017 after he smashed a GPS tracking device state agents had placed on his truck. At the time, their father, Leonard Manley, said the agents had claimed James failed a polygraph exam. The tampering with evidence charge was dropped days after it was filed.
Fredericka Wagner, the Wagner family matriarch, was charged with lying to the grand jury and obstruction but the charges against her was later dropped. Prosecutors have indicated they planned to refile charges against Fredericka Wagner at a later date. Rita Newcomb, Angela Wagner’s mother, was charged with forgery and obstruction of justice.
Newcomb denied forging custody documents signed days before the murders that would grant sole custody of Jake and George’s children to their mother should they or Hanna Rhoden die. Newcomb later admitted during a plea hearing in December 2019 that she lied about signing the documents at her daughter’s request. Newcomb was a notary at the time the documents were signed.
George Wagner IV is scheduled to appear in court again on Oct. 25. His father’s next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 17.
Read the full filing below.
Angenette Levy contributed to this report.
[All images via Law&Crime Network)
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